How the changes to Ontario’s licensing process may affect you

***NOTE: this blog post is an addendum to a series of blog posts that I wrote in 2015 about studying for the Ontario Barrister and Solicitor exams. The proposed changes discussed here may affect some of the content discussed on those previous posts. Therefore, please note that I provide these posts strictly for informational purposes, and that we hold no responsibility for any decisions you make with regards to the licensing process.***

If you’re someone currently going through law school or are about to enter law school, listen up: there are some potential changes to the licensing process that you need to be aware of.

As you may already know, the LSUC licensing process is currently based on successful completion of three components:

  1. the Barrister and Solicitor exams, administered three times/year
  2. the 10-month Articles of Clerkship (often referred to as “articling”), or the 8-month Law Practice Program (LPP); and
  3. satisfying the good character requirement.

Up until now, these three components can be finished at any time within a three-year window of opportunity. There is currently no requirement to complete them in any particular order. However, the Law Society of Upper Canada (LSUC) is considering making changes to the licensing process in an effort to revamp the process to meet the challenging demands of modern legal practice. 

The full proposal for these changes can be seen here.

The changes can be summarized as follows:

  1. the bar examinations will still be two examinations, but structured slightly differently:
    1. One exam will be a knowledge-based exam called the “Practice and Procedure Examination” (PPE), which combines topics from the current Barrister’s and Solicitor’s exams into one exam. This exam would have to be completed prior to the start of the experiential learning component (i.e. articling/LPP)
    2. Another exam, called the “Practise Skills Examination” (PSE), will have to be completed after completing the articles of clerkship/LPP. That examination will focus on demonstrating practice skills and practice management, professional responsibility and ethics.
  2. The Articles of Clerkship would be reduced to be a 9-month term, as opposed to a 10-month term. For individuals who have prior practice experience in another jurisdiction, an abridgment would be available to reduce the articling term, but would not exceed three months.
    1. This means that foreign graduates with prior work experience would still have to secure an articling position in Ontario for a minimum of 6 months.
  3. A candidate will have to complete the licensing process within three years of applying for licensure. If a candidate is not successful in completing the above requirements within the 3-year period, they will not be eligible to register for a second time.
    1. This effectively means that you have one 3-year window to complete the licensing process requirements. If you are not successful within that period of time, you will not be eligible to be licensed as a lawyer in Ontario.

How to navigate those changes

If you are reading this blog post, you are likely someone who is a recent law graduate, or you are in the process of going through the licensing process. In either case, these proposed changes will have an impact on your licensing process if they are implemented, and it’s important to have a plan about how to navigate the licensing process in light of these changes.

Step 1: Develop your three-year plan

The first step in navigating the licensing process is to develop your three-year plan. You may already have an idea of what that plan will be, but taking some time to reflect on this initially is important as well. This plan can become crucial in helping you answer key questions like “do I even want to pursue my legal license” or “what will I do with my legal license”?

The reason I emphasize a three-year plan is because that is the window of time within which you would have to complete the necessary steps in the above-mentioned LSUC licensing process. It is a crucial three-year window both for your personal development as a lawyer, as well as your efforts to get licensed. If you have decided you want to secure a license to practice law within the next three years, then it becomes even more important to lay down a plan of how you will get that license because, as mentioned above, you will only have one three-year window to complete the licensing process.

As you can see from the above-mentioned proposed changes, one key element will be the “consequential” steps necessary to get your license. That is to say, you must complete one step to be able to go on to the others. Although it might seem simple and straightforward from there, that’s not necessarily true. You should spend some time thinking about whether you should secure an articling position before embarking on the licensing process, or whether you need to take some time to study for the necessary examinations.

Step 2: Set a deadline to secure an articling position/LPP enrolment

This may not seem like a huge change, considering that this was something that needed to be done anyways under the current licensing process. However, this step becomes an even more important achievement under these proposed changes, since it anchors the completion of the licensing process and is a necessary step for studying for the proposed second exam (i.e. the Practice Skills Examination (PSE)).

For now, it seems that traditional articling will continue to be available for students (although this may change in a few years, since it seems that the LSUC is trying to phase out traditional articling). If you decided to pursue a traditional articling position, you’ll need to make sure that this articling position has some key components to maximize its benefit for you, including:

  1. Is there a formal training process that includes performance reviews?
  2. Are there learning opportunities that focus on aspects of legal ethics and professional responsibility?
  3. Is there an opportunity for formal mentorship to answer the seemingly “unanswerable” questions related to practicing law?
    1. E.g. Do you have a mentor to help you through dealing with different clients, or helping you determine which area of law you want to focus on?

These components do not necessarily have to be found exclusively within the firm you want to article in. For example, if you have a mentor outside of the firm, that is still beneficial for you, and you can still count them as a formal mentor in your training.

Step 3: Have a plan to pass the bar from the first time

I previously wrote a series of blog posts on how to maximize your chances of passing the bar (if you would like to see them, click here for part I, here for part II, and here for part III). Although these proposed changes outlined above may change some things I advised in those blog posts, there are still some key things that are still applicable.

One of those things is the importance of knowing your strengths and weaknesses. This is still applicable under the new proposed licensing process, and will become even more crucial in this new process. Knowing your own strengths and weaknesses will help you create a game plan of what you need to do to put your best foot forward. Some common weaknesses that I see some students struggle with are:

  1. They are not the best test-takers: some students are easily flustered by the intimidating environment of the exam, or they struggle to maintain composure when they face a difficult question on the exam;
  2. They are disorganized: some students are highly knowledgeable about the materials and really know their stuff, but they get lost in the sea of information that they have to navigate to find the right answer. Some students are also disorganized because they have not committed enough time to study for the exam, which can lead to a disorganized effort to conquering the exam;
  3. They have little knowledge about the exam: some, though not many, students have little knowledge about what the exam focuses on. These students may have an incorrect idea about what the exam procedure entails, what kind of questions they will be asked, and what they need to study or bring with them on the day of the exam. Even though the exam process and questions are highly guarded by the Law Society, there are still some resources available to give students an idea about the exam, including this page from the LSUC itself.

If you feel that you have any of these common weaknesses, you need to start by having a plan of how you will manage them. These are not detrimental weaknesses to have, and managing them may require only a few small changes to make in your studying efforts. However, managing them early on will help you overcome this exam as early as possible, and this is becoming more and more important thanks to the proposed changes the Law Society may be implementing.

Step 4: Develop your contingency plan(s)

It’s always better to have this plan in mind before you embark on something rather than scramble to put it together later on. A contingency plan for the licensing process is just as important, since you may find that the deadlines you put for yourself were either unrealistic, or you failed to meet them.

As far as a contingency plan for the licensing process goes, you should build a plan that balances the earliest possible completion with sufficient studying and preparation time. Assuming you were to begin the licensing process immediately upon graduating law school, and assuming you don’t run into any setbacks such as securing articling or passing any of the required examinations, you’re looking at completing the licensing process within approximately the first 12 months of the licensing window. However, it would be prudent to set up a contingency plan to know how much extra time you can use to complete the licensing process, should the need for such additional time arise.

It is also prudent to think about the circumstances under which you would abandon the licensing process altogether. For some of us, such an idea would seem to be impossible or unthinkable, but it is perfectly reasonable to reflect on the kinds of job opportunities in other fields that would be interesting enough for you to consider. For example, if you are someone who is passionate about provincial politics, you might see that as a reason for leaving the practice of law in order to pursue a career there. In developing your contingency plans, consider whether you foresee any opportunities that would be interesting enough to pursue without a license to practice law.

A word for foreign graduates

Most of my advice so far has been geared more towards graduates of Canadian law schools. While most of it is also applicable to foreign graduates, the aspect of securing articling positions may be different for foreign graduates, as they may be coming to Canada with some years of experience already under their belt, or they may be coming back to Canada after many firms have completed their articling hiring process.

One thing that jumps out at me about these proposed licensing process changes is the limitations being put on foreign experience. It seems that the Law Society wants to continue recognizing foreign practice experience, but on a limited basis. My guess is that they will be recognizing foreign practice experience only for some of the most experienced practitioners, and not so much for recent foreign graduates.

If so, recent foreign graduates should consider trying to secure an articling position at a Canadian firm or company, preferably before they graduate.

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